Book Review: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury
As one does after reading Michael Wolff’s incendiary new bestseller about the disorganization and incompetence of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury, I made sure everyone in my contacts knew I was caught up on the news and had finished the book.
After my announcement, a friend asked me what I believe is the punchline of the whole media storm: “So what does Wolff reveal? What’s the discovery?”
To which I replied: “Not much.”
Wolff’s broad claims are the same as what we have heard all year. He presents an image of the president that is insecure, self interested, and watches way too much cable television. (Apparently, Trump often has three TVs going at the same time.) He describes in detail the volatile triumvirate of Trump’s official Chief of Staff, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, and unofficial chiefs of staff, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and alt-right maven Steve Bannon, who was recently pushed out of the White House inner circle. Bannon has, since his testimony in Fire and Fury, been outright repudiated by Trump and the powerful, Breitbart-bankrolling Mercers.
In tell-all interviews with Wolff, Steve Bannon bemoans the “stupidity” of Jared and Ivanka Trump (to whom he collectively assigns the diminutive “Jarvanka”); lauds the president’s brand of Trumpism as larger than the man himself; and critiques the influence, no matter how small, of liberal Wall Street personalities like Gary Cohn and Dina Powell.
But none of this inspires surprise.
To be fair, Wolff provides details that have yet to be seen beyond the white walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, shading in what we already understood to be true. He colorfully describes a “notably…unruffled day” during which, upon some brief meditation and with the ardent support of his family, President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey. A short while later, his staff learns of the news from Fox.
Fire and Fury also gives us the tragic backstory of Anthony Scaramucci—it perhaps was available for public consumption the whole time, but was not the primary focus of his short tenure. Wolff recounts “the Mooch’s” desperate attempt to be placed in a high office: Scaramucci roams the West Wing with Starbucks coffees for Bannon and leaves his business so he will be ready at any moment to take a position without any conflicts of interest.
The moment waited for—Wolff’s take on the Russia controversy—is a letdown. Wolff’s description of the fabled meeting with Russians barely fills three pages and is replete with speculation. He dedicates a page to “the why-and-how theories of this imbecilic meeting.”
That’s where the problem lies. Wolff’s book is not an academic, or really by most standards, journalistic, oeuvre. The author has been known to sacrifice truth for a good story. As David Carr wrote for the New York Times on Wolff’s 2008 book about Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, Wolff is “far too struck by the fragrance of his own prose,” and “one of the problems with Wolff’s omniscience is that while he may know all, he gets some of it wrong.”
After reading Fire and Fury, it is easy to believe Carr’s critique applies to Wolff’s latest book. There is far too much dialogue—especially private conversations to which Wolff was not privy—for his content to be completely accurate. For every potentially new anecdote, readers must proceed with a strong dose of caution, which drastically devalues the book’s journalistic utility.
Despite this, I think Wolff’s book serves a useful function, even if it is not to provide new and accurate information.
It is, plainly, a fun read. The work is paced like fiction and feels like a conversation with your uncle—Wolff is generous with profanity and Yiddishisms (“shtick,” “kibosh”). The book is timely and cathartic in a month when national and international tensions creep even higher (see events like Hawaii’s missile threat). It perversely gives a little laugh: our President is about as far off the deep end as one can be, but finally, mercifully, someone will admit it. No more “racially uninformed” instead of “racist”: Wolff calls it like it is.
Even though the book covers little more than the events of the past year, reading it made the past feel new again. I had forgotten all of the escapades of the Trump Administration, which unfolded with as much speed, drama, and viewership as a season of The Bachelor. Wolff’s book is escapist because the hectic last 12 months feel so distant from today.
It is good to look back because the wild news of the past is a reminder that we have made it this far. The next three years may be just as packed, but there is still hope that some semblance of normalcy waits on the other side.